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Five predictions for mental health in the workplace

21 January 2016

Five predictions for mental health in the workplace

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Rising levels of psychological impact from sleep-deprivation, increased techno-stress and the awareness of CBT’s limitations are just some of the mental health trends we are predicting for 2016.

Read on for our top five predictions for the state of workplace mental health for the year ahead:

1. Lack of sleep increasingly leads to risks of anxiety and depression

Interrupted sleep is now the most widely reported psychological disorder in the UK. We’ve become a nation of bad sleepers, with a third of UK adults not getting enough quality sleep. The high correlation between poor sleep and lack of concentration, depression and anxiety means that this will become an even greater workplace concern, with affected employees struggling to function or even attend work.

Technology already disrupts many people’s sleep routine. The working day is longer and the time we have for rest and play is shorter. The time we used to spend winding down has now virtually disappeared, so when we feel tired we just close our laptop, charge our phone and get into bed. And then we’re surprised that we have frightening thoughts racing through our mind, or wake up with an anxiety nightmare. The essential space between work and sleep needs to be preserved in order for us to achieve what we need to out of both.

There’s lots that employers can do to help address the problem, from raising awareness of the issue to sharing practical advice.

2. Rising levels of techno-stress

The debate about how best to separate work and life is set to become all but redundant given the extent to which our mobile devices and email can now infiltrate our lives. We’ve given up on work-life balance; it's now become a work-life blend. Many people have demonstrated that their technical world enhances their achievements and flexibility with hugely positive financial and creative rewards. However, for an increasingly large group of people, their technical world has intensified work, giving rise to unhealthy working patterns, email addiction, decreased family connectedness and increased stress and anxiety levels. With wearable technology set to go mainstream, those people who haven’t learnt how to set boundaries with their own technology will feel overpowered and out of control.

3. More employees will reveal they have psychological problems

Over the last few years, mental health issues have been seriously under-reported in the workplace, mainly due to the stigma associated with admitting anxiety and depressive disorders, and the feeling that line managers won’t be supportive. Many employees have been much more likely to cite musculoskeletal, digestive or viral disorders for absence rather than mental health issues. However, with the success of national campaigns, such as ‘Time to Change’, more and more employees are willing to speak out about their mental health concerns. Every new piece of research has a higher figure for people admitting to having experienced a mental health condition, and those affected are at all levels of the workplace management structure. We are beginning to see MPs, CEOs, and MDs in all areas of business vocalise their personal experiences. Over the coming year it’s likely we are going to see those in need of support coming forward, resulting in more honesty from employees about the real issues causing them to call in sick or underperform, which in turn will put a greater pressure on HR and OH to help.

This will require employers to undergo a learning journey from a state of ‘conscious incompetence’, whereby we finally come to understand the true extent of mental health issues within the workplace to a state of ‘conscious competence’, requiring significant effort to deal with the problem. If executed correctly, with appropriate support solutions and procedures put in place, this will hopefully give rise to a state of ‘unconscious competence’, with managers and HR starting to gain so much practice at dealing with mental health issues that it becomes second nature and a task that can be performed easily.

4. The limitations of CBT will become recognised

Limited resources mean that many employers have developed an over-reliance on short-term fixes such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which helps employees to ‘think and plan themselves better’. CBT has become the ‘go-to’ therapy for many mental health issues. For some employees it has proved to be very effective, assisting a pragmatic, focused and staged therapeutic approach to returning to work after absence. However there remains a considerable number of individuals who require more analytic, holistic therapy which asks questions about the root causes of the current condition. A recent study by the NHS revealed that for the most severely depressed, 18 months of analysis to look at the root causes for the depression worked far better – and with much longer-lasting effects – than ‘treatment as usual’ on the NHS, which included some CBT.

That isn’t to say CBT won’t still have a role to play. But employers will have to start asking more questions about the most appropriate support for particular employees and make better use of a professional triage for mental health conditions.

5. Mental health professionals will expand their workplace presence

In the year ahead, we can expect (and hope) that the mental health profession will work much more closely with employers. Although there will still be a need to respect the confidentiality of employees being supported, there will be an increasing recognition that it’s in the interests of both employer and employee for there to be more of an open dialogue about the issues causing concern. Mental health professionals should be working closely with line-managers and not just employees. There is a huge expectation that line-managers know how to support employees with both common and complex mental health illnesses, but our experience shows us that this is not the case, nor is it their primary function.

Managers are very experienced and confident about asking for the help of an Occupational Health specialist when employees have physical problems, and we see the next year as being a time when managers feel as comfortable utilising the skills and consultancy of counsellors, psychologists and other mental health professionals in order to support them with mental health issues. As a result, mental health professionals and those in charge in the workplace should become much more aligned in their efforts to improve the mental health of the overall workforce, instead of remaining as two quite separate entities, as they typically have done until now.